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Research Funding

Racial and ethnic disparities persist in NSF funding decisions

White researchers are funded at higher rates than scientists from other racial and ethnic groups

by Krystal Vasquez
August 3, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 27

 

Over the past 2 decades, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has consistently funded White researchers at higher rates than researchers from other racial and ethnic groups, according to a new study that has not yet been peer-reviewed (OSF Preprints 2022, DOI: 10.31219/osf.io/xb57u).

Surpluses and deficits

A study of US National Science Foundation awards from 1999 to 2019 calculated that White researchers received a disproportionate number of awards when compared with the average NSF funding rate.

American Indian or Alaska Native: +80 awards

Asian: –9,701 awards

Black or African American: –417 awards

Hispanic or Latino: –175 awards

Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: –17 awards

White: +12,820 awards

Source: OSF Preprints 2022, DOI: 10.31219/osf.io/xb57u.

The study also found that White principal investigators (PIs) have secured NSF funding at increasing rates since at least 1999, a finding that contrasts with a common sentiment among White researchers that they have had more difficulty acquiring funding over time, says Christine Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the work.

The researchers conclude that racial and ethnic disparities translate to thousands of unfunded awards for Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander researchers. Those missed awards equate to several billion dollars in funding.

The disparity was greatest for Asian PIs. On average, between 1999 and 2019, the NSF granted this group 21% fewer awards than the agency’s average funding rate. Meanwhile, the NSF provided White scientists with 8.5% more awards than the agency’s average. Using 2019 data included in the NSF study, Diwakar Shukla, a chemical engineer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, independently calculated that Asian researchers would have to write 40% more proposals to be funded at the same rate as White scientists. “It means Asian PIs have significantly less time for research, mentoring, and family,” he says. That situation could easily lead to job dissatisfaction and burnout.

Similar analyses of funding disparities, such as a 2011 study of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant recipients, have also shown that Asian researchers are less likely to receive funding than their White counterparts (Science 2011, DOI: 10.1126/science.1196783. But the difference in funding rates was significantly larger in the NSF analysis. That could be attributed to how Asian scientists are represented across scientific disciplines funded by different agencies, says Shirley Malcom, director of the STEMM Equity Achievement Change initiative at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Asian scientists tend to be better represented amongst the biological science disciplines that are more likely to recieve funding from the NIH, she says.

The lower rates of Asian scientists’ grant awards could also rebut the notion that funding disparities are driven simply by low numbers of some races or ethnicities in science and engineering, says coauthor Aradhna Tripati, a geoscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Part of NSF’s proposal review process relies on scores of external reviewers. When Chen, Tripati, and their colleagues analyzed scores given in 2015 and 2016, they found that both the mean and median scores were consistently higher for White PIs than for those who were American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Black or African American, or Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. “It really shows just how pervasive racism is,” Tripati says, adding that she has both witnessed and experienced reviewer bias firsthand.

Funding gaps were lower but still large for other racial and ethnic groups. These disparities grew even larger when researchers looked into the individual research areas that NSF funds. For example, even though the NSF funded Black PIs at 8% below the average rate overall, it funded them 20% below the rate in both the engineering and the social, behavior, and economic sciences directorates, despite Black PIs composing a higher proportion of submitted proposals.

Each unfunded project “represents a career direction that somebody could have gone in,” says coauthor Sara Kahanamoku, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. There’s “a whole wealth of opportunity that we’re missing out on when we’re underfunding people like this,” For examples, scientists lose the unique perspectives from communities that scientific spaces typically overlook or disregard, Kahanamoku says.

The researchers provided some broad recommendations to make NSF funding more equitable. “There needs to be accountability,” Tripati says. Shesuggests the NSF increase its data transparency and regularly assess its policies. Tripati also points out that race is just one of many axes of identity that can affect funding outcomes.

Before this study, the NSF had already taken steps to address racial bias through diversity-focused programs. NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan has made alleviating NSF’s funding disparities “one of the top priorities for agency progress and continues to take this seriously,” an NSF spokesperson says in an email.

Malcom says that solutions also need to extend beyond the funding pipeline since these racial disparities in funding ultimately reflect systemic problems that have long been present within the sciences. “We’re not just funding the research; we’re funding the environment in which the research is being done,” she says.

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